Steps to legally protect human rights defenders

On June 10, 2021, a court in Agusan del Sur acquitted 17 human rights defenders and employees of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some of them had been imprisoned for up to a year and seven months. Only months later (in early December 2021) their lawyers were informed of their acquittal. Known as the Sibagat cases, a total of 52 NGO workers were arrested in relation to the kidnapping of 12 soldiers on February 19, 2019 in Sibagat, Mindanao. 35 of them remain in detention. Judge Fernando Fudalan Jr. declared the arrest warrants of those 17 as null and void due to the lack of accurate descriptions of the accused.

Since the massacre of 9 activists by state security forces on March 7, 2021 (known as “Bloody Sunday“) discussions on the handling of arrest and search warrants have already heated up. On July 9, 2021, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that police officers must wear body cameras during house searches while judges may only issue search warrants within their jurisdiction. The latter has already led to the dismissal of charges against 22 individuals. A recent progress regarding the “Bloody Sunday” is the recommendation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to charge one police officer with murder for the killing of Emanuel Ascuncio. Human rights activist and senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares calls this a small success considering the large number of unsolved extralegal killings.

A bill to protect human rights defenders was approved by the House Committee on Human Rights on November 15, 2021. Under the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act (HB 15), a Committee with members elected by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights would be created. For this human rights groups such as Karapatan or the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) can nominate members. The NUJP welcomes the proposed law, saying, “[The law] will help us continue our work in these crucial times.” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, points out that a long process of negotiations lies ahead before the law is passed. She urges lawmakers to ensure that the law will be passed. Members of the National Task Force to End Local Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) call the bill illegal and unnecessary, saying it would institutionalize groups branded as terrorists.

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